Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1660-1690, ed. B.D. Henning, 1983
Available from Boydell and Brewer

Background Information

Right of Election:

in the inhabitants paying scot and lot 1660-81, 1689; in the corporation 1685

Number of voters:

332 in 1679, 12 in 1685


10 Apr. 1660THOMAS GROVE 
31 Oct. 1667JOHN BENNETT vice Lowe, deceased 
22 Feb. 1677THOMAS BENNETT vice John Bennett, deceased 
11 Feb. 1679HENRY WHITAKER75
 Sir Matthew Andrews95
 John Still13
 Laurence Lowe11
 [Christopher] Willoughby11
 Thomas Grove8
 John Wyndham7
 John Bowles2
 George Yeatman1
 Lewis Evans1
 John Bowles121
 Henry Whitaker49
 Lawrence Lowe3
 John Ryves1
 William Bowles1
 Henry Whitaker160
 Sir Matthew Andrews 

Main Article

Shaftesbury, a sessions town and a posting station on the great western road, was conveniently placed as a market where the sheep and corn country of Salisbury Plain met the dairy-farming and stock-raising pastures of the Vale of Blackmoor. As a relic of its medieval past it contained several gentlemen’s seats, but little or no industry owing to scarcity of water. The earls of Pembroke seem to have abandoned their interest as lords of the manor during the Interregnum, and the local magnate, Lord Arundell of Wardour, and his family were disqualified by recusancy. Consequently there were many minor gentry families on the Wiltshire-Dorset border, and even townsmen, for whom a seat at Shaftesbury was not beyond the bounds of possibility, as the 13 candidates for whom votes were cast in 1679 show. The Members elected in 1660 belonged to Shaftesbury’s recent past rather than its future; Thomas Grove was a zealous Presbyterian squire, and James Baker, an attorney of extreme Independent views, had been deeply involved in sequestrations. Their successors in 1661, Henry Whitaker and John Lowe, maintained the balance between nearby residents and residents in the borough, though Lowe, unlike Baker, came from a recognized gentry family. Their politics also balanced. Lowe’s background was strongly Anglican and Royalist, while Whitaker had become recorder of Shaftesbury during the Interregnum; but personally they seem to have remained on good terms. The new charter of 1665 confirmed Whitaker in office, but provided for a royal veto on the appointment of the recorder and town clerk. It also required all the corporation to take the oaths of allegiance and supremacy. The by-election occasioned by Lowe’s death returned John Bennett, who had his own small estate in the neighbourhood, but also acted as Lord Arundell’s steward. More significantly, he was or became closely linked to Sir Anthony Ashley Cooper who was created Earl of Shaftesbury in 1672, and his son Thomas, who succeeded to the seat in 1677, became known as ‘Shaftesbury’s Bennett’, not from his constituency but his patrons.1

At the first general election of 1679 votes were given for no less than 11 candidates, eight of them clearly ‘castaways’ enabling timid electors to avoid an embarrassing choice between two powerful rivals. The sitting Members stood again, and were opposed by Sir Matthew Andrews, who had bought an estate in the neighbourhood, thus becoming the first of the ‘nabobs’ who in the following century were to drive up the price of a Shaftesbury election to 20 guineas a vote. Whitaker was returned as senior Member, though according to a poll taken by the mayor on Bennett’s account he had 21 votes less than his colleague and 20 less than Andrews, who naturally petitioned. But both Bennett and Whitaker were ‘worthy’ Members of the first Exclusion Parliament; no report was made, and the unsuccessful candidate may have decided that it would be cheaper to adjust the scot and lot roll. During the summer the size of the electorate was almost exactly doubled, but Bennett’s poll-list for the autumn election suggests that not more than nine votes were open to challenge. Moreover there had been a disastrous breakdown in discipline in the country party. Only 46 voted the straight ticket (Bennett and Whitaker), compared with 160 who coupled Andrews with Bennett. But 109 voted for Andrews and the new court candidate John Bowles, a resident lawyer. There were only five ‘castaway’ votes this time, and three ‘plumpers’. This is the first indenture of the period in which the ‘commonalty’ are mentioned. Andrews finished triumphantly head of the poll, though Bennett was well ahead of Bowles for the second seat. But at the municipal elections the court party gained control, and Bennett was told: ‘The mayor and all your friends at Shaston [Shaftesbury] are daily trampled on’.2

The electorate was virtually unchanged in 1681, but the junior candidates in both parties were decidedly less enthusiastic. Bowles hoped to join forces with Andrews, but the latter’s absence in London apparently made an arrangement impossible, and Bowles’s purse was not deep enough to mount a separate campaign, though his agent talked cheerfully of £500 set aside for ‘randy money’. After failing to persuade Robert Hyde to stand, the opponents of exclusion were left with only one candidate in the field. But the country party, too, had their troubles: Whitaker was determined to spend no money on the election (which probably accounts for his poor showing in September 1679), and Bennett, who had moved to the London area, was unable to attend the poll. His uncle, who was also his agent, wrote to him: ‘The tap must keep running day and night, and this was not to be avoided, for our friends must be pleased, since they stood so fast after many temptations’. The refreshment was not wasted, for ‘we had 24 voices turned unto us the day before the election’, enough to put the country candidate at the top of the poll, though he yielded precedence to Andrews. For the constituency, however, this was not the end but the beginning. ‘We presently went all to dinner together: Mr Whitaker, Mr Mayor, his brethren, Mr Bowles’s son, Mr Still ... and many more. We were very merry and friendly all together.’ Next, Bennett’s agent must journey to Shroton, seat of the great Thomas Freke I, who was managing the whole exclusionist campaign in Dorset:

Mr Freke gave me ten guineas to give to the poor in Shaftesbury. Besides Mr Freke gave me twenty guineas more for me to spend on your friends. He doth not end his bounty, but told me that I must consider and consult with my Shaftesbury friends how to lay forth £100 that it may remain to the good of the town. ... He was pleased to say, ‘I would not ’a done any of these things had they neglected honest Tom Bennett, and not ’a chose him’.

Finally there was the delicate matter of payment. Even during the campaign the wheels had had to be greased to the tune of £38 in the country interest; but with the poll complete, all was now open and above board, and the country agent awaited the convenience of his court opposite number before setting out together round the town:

I will now give you an account how Mr Napper and myself found out ways to part with our money. First he would pay half a crown for every voice that voted for Sir Matthew for his dinner; half a crown between us had been much better. ... You cannot be more troubled in reading this letter than I was in my mind to pay it, although I durst not show it too much. Mr Napper paid more; better let it alone.

Triumphant but footsore, and suffering from other ills attendant on election dinners, William Bennett concluded:

There is no man able to stand against you, if there should be need again. I hope you will grant my feet a writ of ease, for now all men are most fully satisfied, I think. If my great toes stand sound to me this spring, I will neither charge head, stomach or feet so hard again.3

If the electors thought the expenditure of about £400 on the 1681 election but a foretaste of a golden age, they were to be justified only in the long run. Nothing seems to have come of Andrews’s alleged promise to provide an endowment of £10 a year for the school. A quo warranto was issued in March 1684, and the new charter restricted the franchise to the corporation. Sir Henry Butler, an ultra-Tory country gentleman, was nominated recorder, with Bowles as his deputy. They were returned to James II’s Parliament after a contest. Petitions were received from ‘the burgesses’ and from Andrews; the former was rejected, the latter again shelved. However, the sitting Members were themselves displaced from the corporation in 1687, and James II’s electoral agents expected Bennett and Andrews, ‘of whom we hope to have full satisfaction’, to regain their seats. Bennett’s death in May 1688 plunged them into confusion. In 1689, Andrews, now a Whig, and the Tory Edward Nicholas, another local landlord, were returned by the ‘commonalty’.4

Author: John. P. Ferris


  • 1. Hutchins, Dorset, iii. 7, 17, 40-42; EHR, 1. 248; C. H. Mayo, Shastonian Recs. 10-11.
  • 2. Wilts. RO, 413/435; CJ, ix. 570; Yale Univ., Osborn mss, Wm. to Thos. Bennett, 14 Jan. 1680.
  • 3. Pythouse Pprs. ed. Day, 88-94, 96-99.
  • 4. Luttrell, i. 302; CSP Dom. 1683-4, p. 84; CJ, ix. 723, 725; PC2/72/542; Duckett, Penal Laws, (1883), 223, 242.